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Financing Federal-Aid Highways


The fiscal operations described so far have related to provisions contained in the authorization acts governing the highway program. Yet, as the last section described, there are also other legislative acts, such as appropriations acts, that affect the highway program. Though most of the Federal-aid highway programs do not receive budget authority through appropriations acts as do most other Federal programs, the appropriations act is important in the fiscal process.

For the most part, appropriations that are enacted for the highway program are contained in the annual DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, although they can be placed in other legislative acts such as a supplemental appropriations act. In addition to affecting the FHWA’s programs, these acts also affect all other DOT agencies and those activities of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, National Transportation Safety Board, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The FHWA part of the act is divided into several accounts, each covering one or more highway funding categories. The accounts can be classified according to whether the type of programs composing them have contract authority or budget authority.

Appropriated Budget Authority

As stated, most Federal programs obtain their budget authority through the appropriations process. This type of funding is called "appropriated budget authority" because two steps—an authorization act and an appropriations act—are needed before obligations can be incurred. Under this process, a program (or project) is required to be authorized as part of an authorization act before funds can be appropriated for it. For an appropriated budget authority program, then, the appropriations act is crucial since it gives the go-ahead to obligate authorized funds, as well as the cash needed for reimbursement.

It should also be pointed out, however, that the appropriations committees in Congress sometimes appropriate funds for programs or projects for which there is no supporting authorization. Such an action is against the budgetary rules set by Congress and can be contested by a single member of Congress raising an objection (point-of-order) against the measure. However, if a point of order is not raised and the legislation is enacted, the measure stands.

Although budget authority is provided for some highway programs through appropriations acts, the majority of the Federal-Aid Highway Program (FAHP) is still funded through contract authority. In FY 1999, the total amount of appropriated budget authority provided for the FAHP was only $332 million, compared to the $29.3 billion provided in contract authority authorizations in the TEA-21 for the same fiscal year.

The source of funding for the appropriated budget authority accounts can be either the General Fund of the Treasury or the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Since implementation of the Budget Act of 1974, general funded programs must have appropriated budget authority; i.e., they cannot have contract authority.

Contract Authority

Funds for contract authority programs can be obligated in advance of appropriations based upon the provisions of an authorization act. Although obligations are commitments to reimburse the States for the Federal share of a project’s cost, actual cash reimbursements by the Department of the Treasury cannot be made until they are appropriated. This, then, is the primary function of an appropriations act as it relates to the major part of the highway program—the provision of the cash to liquidate the Federal commitment. The act provides the bulk of this cash in one account, Federal-Aid Highways, that covers liquidating cash needs for most of the contract authority, trust-funded categories. Examples of programs included in the Federal-Aid Highways account are the Surface Transportation Program, Interstate Maintenance Program, Transportation and Community and System Preservation Pilot Program, and High Priority Projects.

The $24.0 billion of liquidating cash provided by the FY 1999 DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act in the Federal-aid highway account was based on an estimate of prior unpaid obligations plus new obligations incurred during FY 1999 for which vouchers are expected to be presented by the States for payment during the fiscal year. Therefore, this amount is the consequence of the authorization/obligation process but is not equivalent to either the amount authorized for FY 1999 or expected to be obligated in FY 1999. The liquidating cash amount will change from year to year. As discussed earlier, the liquidating cash provided in the accounts covering contract authority must come from the HTF because of the link established in the Budget and Impoundment Control Act between trust fund financing and contract authority.

Limitation on Obligations

Since the nature of the highway program (i.e., contract authority and reimbursement) prevents direct Federal control of cash outlays in any year, Congress relies on limitations on obligations to control the program and make it more responsive to prevailing budget and economic policy. By placing a ceiling on obligations, future cash outlays are indirectly controlled. It is in the budget/appropriations process that Congress concerns itself with overall Federal spending in terms of cash outflow; thus, a limitation on obligations will be included in an appropriations act.

A limitation on obligations and the process for distribution was included in the TEA-21 for each of the years covered by the act. However, Congress may change the amounts set or revise those procedures in the annual DOT andRelated Agencies Appropriations Act. The FY 1999 DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act contained two separate sections to establish limitations for the FHWA programs, one for programs under the Federal-Aid Highways (FAH) account and one for the Motor Carrier Safety Grants account. Again, these limitations are not restricting the amount of cash for reimbursements, but are ceilings on obligations that can be incurred during the fiscal year. The ceiling for the FAH account of $25.511 billion for FY 1999 was set in the TEA-21 and confirmed in the FY 1999 DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Other Appropriations

In addition to the annual DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, other appropriations actions can affect the funding available for the FAHP. A supplemental appropriations act is sometimes necessary during the course of a fiscal year when it becomes apparent that additional funds are needed for key operations of the Federal government. The Administration will request that Congress enact supplemental legislation when it foresees this situation. Provisions relating to highways for which supplemental appropriations have been enacted include funds for pay increases or emergency projects where available Emergency Relief funds are not sufficient.

A continuing resolution provides cash to tide agencies over when an annual appropriations act has failed to be enacted by the beginning of the fiscal year. For the Federal highway program, the resolution provides cash so that reimbursements for authorized programs can continue to be made to the States at the same rate as the previous fiscal year (or the lowest rate included in either the Senate- or House-passed versions of an appropriations act if it is lower than the previous year) until the DOT annual appropriations bill is enacted. In recent years, continuing resolutions have become commonplace, and it has become more routine for continuing resolutions, like appropriations acts, to include provisions that establish (authorize) new, albeit small, programs.

The Federal Budget and Appropriations Acts

Omitted from the previous discussion was an explanation of how the amounts in the appropriations acts are derived. The usual course of events starts in the spring of each year, about 1½ years before the beginning of the fiscal year being addressed, when the FHWA begins work on the budget. Included in the FHWA budget are: (1) estimates of outlays (necessary cash to liquidate obligations), (2) proposed budget authority for those programs that do not have contract authority, (3) a proposed level of obligations for the Federal-aid programs that have contract authority, should some measure of control be considered necessary, (4) an estimate of the anticipated administrative costs to run the agency and oversee the program, and (5) the amount of revenue aligned budget authority (will be discussed at the end of this section). Also reviewed are policy issues that may affect the upcoming budget.

Development of the budget progresses through the FHWA, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, and the Office of Management and Budget, where final decisions are made in early fall. The executive branch’s budget activities culminate in the submission to Congress of the President's Federal Budget on the first Monday in February, less than 9 months before the fiscal year begins.

In the spring, Congress formulates its own version of the Federal budget, using the President’s budget as input. The Budget Committees (one in the House and one in the Senate) were established by the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act to fulfill the function of drawing up budget resolutions and shepherding them through their respective houses. The budget resolutions set spending and tax levels and must also explicitly set a deficit or surplus level for the year. The House- and the Senate-approved budget resolutions then go through the conference committee process, and the agreed-upon version is sent back to each house for approval. The President’s signature is not required on budget resolutions. The congressionally-approved budget resolution is intended to guide the committees in formulating legislation for the next year.

If all is on schedule, all appropriations acts (including the DOT’s) are passed and signed by the President by October 1 of each year (the House is supposed to complete action on the acts by June 30). If, as often is the case, the DOT Appropriations Act is not enacted on time, then reimbursing cash is provided through a continuing resolution as previously discussed. The Administration will establish a temporary obligation limitation based on the length of the continuing resolution and the House and Senate actions to date on the full appropriation legislation. The apportionment or allocation of funds for contract authority programs will proceed on schedule whether or not an appropriations bill has been enacted because contract authority programs proceed on the basis of an authorizing act alone.

Table 2 shows the timetable for the Federal budget process.

Table 2.—Timetable for Federal Budget Process.
First Monday in February President submits budget
February 25 Committees submit views and estimates to Budget Committee
April 15 Deadline for adopting budget resolution for coming year
May 15 Annual appropriations bills can be reported out
June 10 Deadline for reporting out all appropriations acts by House
June 30 Deadline to pass all appropriations acts by House
September 30 Deadline for enacting all spending measures
October 1 Fiscal year begins

The congressional procedures for enacting an appropriations act are like those for an authorization act described in "Authorization Act" and illustrated in Figure 1. One major difference is that the committees with jurisdiction are the Appropriations Committees and their transportation subcommittees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Also, with appropriations acts, action must originate in the House of Representatives.

Budget Firewalls and Guaranteed Funding

In general, the Federal budget takes into account all spending and revenue raising activities of the Federal government. If total spending in any fiscal year exceeds total revenue, the excess spending is the deficit for that fiscal year. Conversely, if revenue exceeds spending, there is a budget surplus in that fiscal year. The amount of budget deficit is important because it largely determines the amount of funds the government must borrow from the private economy to pay for excess spending during a fiscal year. The Federal debt, also referred to as the "national debt," is the accumulated debt of the Federal government. Whenever the Federal government runs a budget deficit, the additional borrowing to finance the deficit adds to the Federal debt. By contrast, if the Federal government runs a budget surplus, the Federal debt will decrease if the Treasury uses the surplus to reduce the outstanding debt.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 (BEA1990) established multi-year deficit reduction goals and established the basic spending control framework that remains in use today. It divided spending into two categories—mandatory and discretionary—based on the ability of Congress to control the spending through the annual appropriations process.

Mandatory spending generally includes all spending for specific programs that is made pursuant to laws other than appropriations laws. The fundamental characteristic of mandatory spending is the lack of annual discretion to establish spending levels due to a binding legal obligation by the Federal government to provide funding for an individual, program or activity. Generally, Congress and the President cannot increase or decrease spending for these programs in a given year without changing existing substantive law. Mandatory spending accounts for about two-thirds of all spending and is authorized by permanent law. It includes outlays for entitlement programs—such as Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits—through which individuals receive benefits because they are eligible based on their age, income, or other criteria. It also includes interest on the national debt and non-entitlements such as payments to States from Forest Service receipts. Two surface transportation programs are mandatory—Emergency Relief and $639 million/year of the Minimum Guarantee program.

By contrast, discretionary spending refers to those programs that are subject to annual funding decisions in the appropriations process. The Congress may reduce spending for a discretionary program by reducing its annual appropriation or, in the case of a contract authority program, by imposing an obligation limitation. Most of the operations of the Federal government are funded by discretionary spending through the 13 annual appropriations bills. Examples of discretionary spending—which accounts for approximately one-third of the all Federal spending—include funding for the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and transportation.

Figure 5 shows the total spending for the Federal government for FY 1999, split between the mandatory and discretionary categories.63

Figure 5
Total $1,727

Figure 5.—FY 1999 Federal Spending.

The BEA1990 established annual caps on discretionary spending to help achieve its deficit reduction goals.64 Under a spending cap, the Congress must adjust the spending for any or all programs subject to the cap so that total spending for those programs does not exceed the annual cap.

Within the discretionary category, spending for certain programs has been protected by budgetary "firewalls." These firewalls take the form of separate spending caps for the protected programs that prevent the programs from being reduced in order to increase spending for other discretionary programs. Consequently, any reductions in these firewall programs for a particular year would go towards deficit reduction. Section 8101 of the TEA-21 created just such a firewall between highway spending, transit spending, and other domestic discretionary spending for FYs 1999 through 2003. Therefore, for FY 1999, there were five separate categories for discretionary spending: defense, violent crime reduction, highways, mass transit, and all other discretionary programs (lumped into a "non-defense spending" category).65

As shown in Table 3, of the amounts authorized for surface transportation programs in the TEA-21, $198 billion is guaranteed to be available for obligation during the 6-year period covered by the act—$162 billion for highway and highway safety programs (which includes the discretionary spending firewall amount and mandatory spending) and $36 billion for transit programs. The highway firewall protects the obligation limitations for Federal-aid Highways, Motor Carrier Safety Grants, Highway Traffic Safety Grants, and NHTSA Operations and Research. Funding for the Emergency Relief program and a portion of the Minimum Guarantee program ($639 million per year) are mandatory spending. Authorizations contained in the TEA-21 for fiscal years 1998-2003 in excess of the guaranteed funding levels—$15 billion for highway programs and $5 billion for transit programs—may be made available by Congress through the annual appropriations process but such increases must be considered with and compete against all other domestic discretionary spending.

Table 3.—Guaranteed Funding (Amounts in Millions of Dollars).
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 Total
Discretionary Spending “Firewalls”:
Highway Category (Sec. 8103(a)):
     FAH Obligation Limitation 21,500 25,511 26,245 26,761 27,355 27,811 155,183
     Motor Carrier Safety 85 100 105 112 117 125 644
          NHTSA 256 272 279 285 295 297 1,684
     Subtotal 21,841 25,883 26,629 27,158 27,767 28,233 157,511
Transit Category (Sec. 8103(b)): 4,844 5,365 5,797 6,271 6,747 7,226 36,250
     Total, Discretionary Firewalls 26,685 31,248 32,426 33,429 34,514 35,459 193,761
Mandatory Spending:
Emergency Relief 100 100 100 100 100 100 600
Minimum Guarantee 639 639 639 639 639 639 3,834
     Subtotal 739 739 739 739 739 739 4,434
TOTAL, Guaranteed Funding 27,424 31,987 33,165 34,168 35,253 36,198 198,195

NOTE: There is actually no firewall amount for FY 1998. The amounts shown for FY 1998 and included in the 6-year total reflect the amounts made available for obligation.

Revenue Aligned Budget Authority

The firewall amount for highways is keyed to the projected receipts to the Highway Account of the HTF. Another provision of the TEA-21 is that the firewall amount will be adjusted as new receipt projections are made and actual receipts for earlier years are known. This adjustment will be determined each year during the development of the President’s budget, beginning with FY 2000. When the firewall amount is adjusted, either upward or downward, equal adjustments are made to the Federal-aid Highways (FAH) obligation limitation and authorizations. The adjustment of authorizations is called Revenue Aligned Budget Authority (RABA), but this term is often used to refer to the entire adjustment process.66

Section 8101(d) of the TEA-21 contains projections of receipts into the Highway Account of the HTF for FYs 1998 through 2003, made at the time the legislation was developed. As part of the FY 2000 budget submission, the TEA-21 requires the Administration to compare actual FY 1998 Highway Account receipts with the TEA-21 FY 1998 projection, and to compare revised Department of the Treasury projections of FY 2000 Highway Account receipts with the TEA-21 FY 2000 projection. The sum of these differences, calculated to be $1.456 billion, becomes the RABA funding level for FY 2000. Thus, under the guaranteed funding provisions, the FY 2000 FAH obligation limitation will be increased from the amount set in the TEA-21 ($26.245 billion, see Table 3) to $27.701 billion. This will cause the firewall for the highway category, which is composed of the obligation limitations for Federal-aid Highways, Motor Carrier Safety, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to be increased from $26.629 billion (see Table 3) to $28.085 billion. When budgets are developed for each of fiscal years 2001 through 2003, a similar computation—looking at actual receipts from 2 years prior to the budget year plus revised receipt projections for the budget year—will occur.

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Electronic version of Publication No. FHWA-PL-99-015

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